When we tested the S400 or IXUS 400 in October 2003 we mentioned that we had lost count on the
number of Digital Elphs in existence at that time. Two years on, it is clear that it is not a question
of how many more Elphs Canon will release but when the next one will arrive. With most manufacturers
replacing or updating digital models almost every six months, Canon keep supplying us with a steady
stream of new compacts of which the SD550, or IXUS750 as it is called in certain markets, is the
most recent one.
With a 7-megapixel sensor, a fast 9-point AiAF autofocus system and 3x optical zoom the SD550 is now
Canon's top model in the series, sporting a huge 2.5" LCD screen and an ultra compact stainless steel
body. As we have come to expect, all Elphs are built like the proverbial tank and will be good for many
years of photo fun. Our personal IXUS400 is now more than two years old and although its design and
features are becoming a bit dated it is still going strong after more than 10.000 images.
Using the camera
To satisfy the demand of consumers today, the SD550 is available in a cool looking silver grey or a
fashionable satin beige finish. All major controls are found on the top plate and the rear of the camera.
Buttons are neatly arranged and clearly marked with the on/off button, zoom and shutter control on the top
while Program dial, image review and menu controls are located on the rear. Canon have managed to fit a
huge 2.5" LCD screen on the back. With a zoom function of 10 times and a resolution of 115.000 pixels -
which incidentally is not very high for this class of camera - it should be easy enough to determine
image quality and sharpness. When shooting in dark conditions, the camera automatically brightens the
LCD monitor to suit subject brightness, making it easier to frame the subject.
Body shape, size and handling are virtually identical to older Elph models and this includes the
brushed stainless steel finish, which has become even more glossy and shiny. The lack of any real hold
for your right hand combined with the smooth metal surface and curved body design, means that the camera
feels rather slippery in your hand. This is something to be aware of if you want to avoid an expensive
drop, although wearing the wrist strap at all times will help prevent this. This shiny finish will make
it more susceptible to marks and scratches as well. A nice touch from Canon is that the SD550 has tiny
feet built into the bottom and the side of the camera body, allowing it to be placed in either vertical
or horizontal position for self-timer portraits or long exposure shots.
With an all automatic exposure system the SD550 is truly meant for instant picture taking.
In fully automatic mode the only parameters you can change are image size or quality and flash.
More advanced users will opt for Manual Mode which allows control over settings such as white balance;
metering mode; photo effects or exposure compensation over two stops in 1/3-step increments. With the
exception of the Long Shutter mode for night shots in the Function menu, there is no control over
aperture or shutter speeds whatsoever. Canon must have concluded that the intended user group will
probably have no need for this anyway. Should extreme lighting conditions mislead the camera's
metering system however, it is easy to dial in some exposure compensation through the Function menu.
When there is a risk of camera shake, a red camera icon starts flashing in the bottom left corner of
the LCD monitor and we especially liked the fact that the camera's chosen shutter speed is indicated
beside it, so that advanced users
can make a calculated guess if a steady hand will save the image or not.
Although Canon should be applauded for still including an optical viewfinder, we found it rather
uncomfortable to use. For a start it is almost impossible for spectacle wearers to bring their eyes
close enough to the finder to make out the subject, while both left and right eyed photographers will
have serious trouble with where to stick their noses. Because of the compact size of the camera it is
rather difficult to hold the camera to your eye as your nose gets flattened either against the left
corner of the camera or against the controls to the right of the LCD screen. Left eyed photographers
should be careful not to poke their thumb into their right eye while trying to reach the shutter control
with their index finger. In short, this viewfinder is fit for emergency use only.
As always with Canon, the menu system is a real pleasure to use. All functions are clearly laid out
under three tabs for image control, camera settings and personalising your camera with start up sounds
and images. The separate Function button in the centre of the 4-way control provides access to frequently
used functions such as white balance (seven settings including custom WB), exposure compensation (+/- 2EV
in 1/3-step increments), metering mode (centre-weighted, evaluative linked to the focus point or spot
metering), photo effects (such as neutral or vivid colours, soft focus or sepia and black & white)
and image size and quality.
The 4-way control provides direct access to five flash modes, infinity or macro up to two inches (5cm),
ISO settings ranging from 50 to 400, or burst mode and self timer. In playback a histogram can be called up
to assess image brightness and determine whether dialling in exposure compensation will improve your image,
relative to lighting conditions or subject values. Several advanced functions which will probably hardly be
used are not as easy to get at. For instance, if you want focus lock applied without this being linked to
exposure lock, you should half-press the shutter and ISO button simultaneously, which is quite hard to do
on such a tiny camera. Similar contortionist-like operations are required to determine and lock flash
exposure (FE lock) to fire off a pre flash. We would have liked a more conventional way to apply flash
compensation with manual settings similar to the exposure compensation facility in the Function menu.
The SD550 has nine Scene modes to achieve optimum results in situations ranging from (night) portrait
to children and animals, foliage and fireworks, underwater scenes, and beach or snow scenes with automatic
exposure compensation and cooler and warmer white balance respectively.
In the box
Apart from the usual array of cables, straps and charger, Canon includes Digital Solutions Disk version
25.0 with utility programs such as ZoomBrowser EX 5.5, PhotoRecord 2.2, PhotoStitch 3.1 and TWAIN drivers
for Macintosh and Windows. Our experiences with these programmes is that - over the years - they have
developed from rather basic to quite advanced, getting better with each new Canon camera. Especially
ZoomBrowser EX is a very user friendly program for fast image transfer and labelling or organising them.
The 3.7 Volt 790mAh li-ion NB3L battery should be good for about 150 images according to CIPA standards,
although we managed to capture significantly more pictures even with frequent use of the LCD screen.
You should remember however, that climate conditions can also influence battery life quite considerably.
Besides, turning the LCD screen off will get you three times as many images as with the monitor switched on.
The compact CB-2LUE charger will charge an empty battery to full capacity again in about 95 minutes.
Optional accessories for the SD550 include the WP-DC80 waterproof case and a case weight (WW-DC1)
to prevent the camera from floating while taking pictures under water. There is also a wireless high
power flash HF-DC1 that is linked to the zoom lens to narrow the flash's angle of throw and effectively
doubles the range of the camera's built-in flash. With a guide number of 18 at ISO 100, the slave
automatically fires in-sync with the camera's built-in flash ignoring any pre-flash. It can be adjusted
to three power output settings based on the aperture value of the camera. It is attached to the camera
with a supplied bracket that maintains the ability to mount both camera and flash to a tripod.
The SD550 uses Canon's own f/2.8-4.9 37-111mm 3x zoom lens with digital macro facility. A small AF-light
on the front of the camera assists the advanced 9-point AiAF focusing system in dark lighting conditions
to ensure fast and accurate focusing without hunting. Image quality of the small lens is excellent and
although there is no meaningful control over aperture or shutter speeds, exposure is spot on almost every
time. Should dominant highlights mislead the camera's metering system into underexposure, it is easy to
dial in some exposure compensation and try again.
In all we were quite pleased with the performance of this lens since there is only mild barrel distortion
and a hint of corner softness at wide angle. This is perfectly normal for cameras in this class and its
effect will hardly be visible in day to day shots. The tele setting barely shows any measurable distortion
at all. A tiny amount of vignetting or light fall off is present at the lens's widest setting but this is
so minimal that it will hardly be noticeable in real life images.
Pictures taken with the Canon SD550 show excellent sharpness with a surprising amount of detail
whereas colours are vivid but natural with especially pleasing skin tones in people portraits.
Naturally these can be tweaked to your own liking in the Function menu where, apart from neutral
or more saturated colours, there is also a soft focus option. In normal outdoor conditions Auto
White Balance does a perfect job although on overcast days you may prefer to use the Cloudy setting
for slightly warmer images. Noise is absent in images taken at ISO 50 and it is only when you get
to ISO 200 that noise becomes more noticeable in shadow areas. At 400 ISO highlight areas are affected
but images are still perfectly useable.
Apart from our minor qualms about the tiny optical viewfinder, which is a bit awkward to use and only
shows about 80% of the image area, the Canon SD550 is a welcome addition to the range of Digital Elphs.
Its ultra compact size ensures you can take it with you wherever you go. Canon's famed durability and
robustness will guarantee years of picture taking pleasure and its stylish appearance and good performance
make it an excellent choice for the photographer who wants an easy to use point-and-shoot camera. Add
to this that apart from excellent photo quality it has got a very good movie mode and there is no doubt
that you get a lot of camera for your money. Just remember to wear that wrist strap . . .